When it comes to beef, there’s nothing like prime rib grilled over a smoky hickory fire. If you’ve never tried it, you’ll be glad to know it’s really quite easy. It just seems there’s a lot at stake when expectations are high. Consider the time our friend Mike had the future of Weber grills riding on a very important prime rib dinner—and Mother Nature pulled a fast one.
Back in the mid-1970s Weber set out to achieve national distribution. We had a strong foothold in the Midwest, thanks in part to our relationship with Sears. But we had yet to convince Sears that they could sell our grills just as well in the South, East, and West.
One day I learned all Sears’ regional vice presidents were coming to Chicago, Weber’s hometown, for a January meeting. I volunteered to grill them a special dinner of aged prime rib roast beef.
A lowly grill peddler cooking for their top brass was a brash proposal, but I knew if I could wow them with a grilled dinner, I could convince them to carry our grills in their stores across the nation. It took a little persistence, but they agreed to let us entertain them at the Lake Point Towers on the shores of Lake Michigan in mid-January.
Once the rush of my initial success wore off, I began to worry. Chicago’s cold in January!
We decided to set up on the rooftop of the towers just outside the dining room, where floor-to-ceiling windows provided a panoramic view of the Chicago skyline... including the newly erected Sears Tower.The perfect vantage point for them to watch us grilling dinner on Weber charcoal kettles.
The executive chef, an enthusiastic griller and proud Weber grill owner, helped me with the menu: a hickory-smoked shrimp appetizer followed by a grilled lobster salad, then the prime rib, stuffed with garlic and walnuts and crowned with a garlicky horseradish aïoli. It was ambitious, but I was confident that Mother Nature would provide a crisp, clear windless night.
She sent a major storm instead. Freezing rain, then 10 inches of blowing snow.
The next morning, when the temperature dropped below zero and the wind howled down Lake Michigan, I took my grilling team to a local ski shop to load up on expedition-grade parkas rated to -50ºF.
We loaded up our vans and made the slippery drive in horrible conditions. On the roof we were nearly blown over by the wind gusts. Bundled like mountaineers, we shoveled, de-iced, and set our grills as close as we could to the restaurant’s windows. The temperature continued to drop.
In good conditions, a whole prime rib roast will take 2 to 4 hours to cook, so I added another hour to the cooking time. The wind actually helped start the charcoal and keep it blazing. When we placed two beautiful prime rib roasts on our largest kettle grills at 3:00 p.m., the chef told us the temperature had dropped to -10ºF, with a wind-chill of -30ºF.
Promptly at 6:00 p.m. the VPs and their staff arrived in their pristine dark suits, starched white shirts, red ties, and—despite the weather—not a windblown lock of hair.
They were greeted by the sight of six crazy masked men in parkas and chef aprons grilling shrimp and lobsters in a cloud of steam and smoke driven by a fierce wind against the lights of Chicago’s frigid skyline.They were stunned, to say the least, but at least they had their conversation starter.
The smoked shrimp was a hit, and the group marveled at the grilled lobster salad.
I checked the prime rib at 7:00 p.m. My meat thermometer registered 135°F. After resting, the roasts would come up to a perfect medium-rare temperature. At the same time the air temperature was -15ºF and the wind-chill at ground level was -40ºF.
The VPs left their tables and gathered at the window as we lifted the roasts off the grills and carried them into the room on cutting boards. I’m sure they will never forget the image of our grill team in expedition clothing and grilling aprons as we triumphantly placed the steaming prime rib roasts on silver carving carts.
Needless to say, dinner was a success and Sears started offering our grills in all their sales territories the next spring. I still have my expedition parka rated to -50ºF.
This past winter I dusted it off and cooked a dinner of roasted duck for some friends during an outrageous winter storm. Like the Sears brass, they gathered at my patio door and watched me add charcoal to the fire as the wind blew sparks sideways.
I couldn’t help but remember that night so many years ago and the fact that a Weber grill has never let me down, no matter what the weather.